kellyrfineman (kellyrfineman) wrote,

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VOICES BEYOND BONDAGE, ed. by Erika DeSimone and Fidel Louis

I feel very lucky to have received a review copy of VOICES BEYOND BONDAGE: An Anthology of Verse By African Americans of the 19th Century from New South Books. The editors, Fidel Louis and Erika DeSimone, have spent years working to locate and collect the poems found inside the book. All the poems were written during the 19th century and published in black-owned paper, and all are believed to have been written by African Americans, with strong effort to identify authors as much as possible, though some remain anonymous. (Hence my use of the phrase "believed to have been".)

The book is divided into five sections, though there is some overlap in content among the sections, since slavery is mentioned in more than the first, and the temperance movement is mentioned in more than one section, etc. This isn't a complaint or even a quibble, by the way, just an observation, and the editors did a very good job sorting them into sections.

The first section is entitled BONDAGE AND CALLS TO FREEDOM, which includes poems by slaves as well as others who were calling for justice and an end to slavery. The second section, DEDICATIONS AND REMEMBRANCES, are often sentimental poems about family members or remembrances of the dead, although it includes some of the strongest and most political anti-slavery poems in the entire book, including "To ******" by H.E.G.D., which addresses what seems to be a powerful political personage who has sold their soul for gold (akin to Judas Iscariot), probably in relation to passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, and "Southrons" by Daniel Haynes, published in Frederick Douglass' Paper in 1854. It is a condemnation of the slave trade, but with the added condemnations of the practice of raping female slaves, then selling the resulting children at the slave market for a profit - an exceedingly high profit when "Nancy and Emma, and Betty, so fair,/With skin nearly white, and their long narrow hair,/ To lecherous bachelors, buried in vice,/Are sold at a very exorbitant price." The author excoriates slave-owners and slave-traders, then turns his attention to Northerners and people in other non-slave states who allowed the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act to pass through Congress, making it impossible for slaves to escape to safety in those states. He compares them to Judas and Esau, selling their birth-rights, for which they won't earn money or acclaim, then calls them boot-lickers. (Yes, really.)

Ye Judases, Esaus, your birth right you've sold!
But no mess of pottage, nor silver, nor gold,
Will you ever obtain; for your purchasers know
That no favor on you will the people bestow.
From shame and derision, reproach and contempt,
Henceforth and forever you'll ne'er be exempt.
Go, prostrate yourselves, ye base miscreants, knaves;
Go, prostrate yourselves to the masters of slaves,
And there plead the service you've rendered their cause,
By enacting their slave territorial laws.
Think you they'll reward you? Their boots you may lick,
And perhaps for your pains they may give you a kick;
Full well, ye deserve it, 'tis justly your due,
So meekly receive it, ye groveling crew.
Disgusted and loathing, I leave you to roll
In moral putrescency, body and soul.

The poet then praises those "champions of Freedom and Right" who stand in opposition to slavery, comparing them to Caleb and Joshua, standing against giants in Canaan, and praising them, saying their names would be remembered over time, while those of their foes would not. It's one of the most remarkable pieces of persuasive writing in the book, and also a fine piece of poetry written in rhymed couplets (a very popular form of poetry in the mid-19th century, widely used by the best writers of the time, including Mr. Haynes).

The third section of the book is entitled MORAL & CIVIC PERSPECTIVES, and includes quite a number of temperance poems as well as poems exhorting readers to work diligently, or to learn from adversity. It includes, too, poems about war and about how the writers consider the United States their homeland. The section includes a couple of stellar sonnets, including "Sonnet to Adversity" by Anonymous, which leads off the section, and A.S. Standard's "Sonnet" extolling truth in speech, along with a number of other excellent poems. Some of the topics here overlap with the fifth section, SPIRIT & THE NATURAL WORLD. In that section, many of the poems read like hymns-- and good ones, at that.

Backing up, there's the fourth section of the book, REMINISCENCE & HUMOR. Some of the poems are sentimental again, such as "There Was a Time I Never Sighed" by C.E.E., which repeats the line, "O, how I wish I had died,/When mind was pure and form was young." And some of them are downright funny, such as "Misconstrued" by Lunsford Lane, in which the words manor and manna are misconstrued by the young couple in the poem to mean "manner", resulting in them parting ways, or "Moveing Day" by an anonymous poet, in which "...dire confusion rules the day,/ And female power usurps the sway,/ As if it were a nation."

A fascinating collection that effectively accomplishes what its editors, DeSimone and Louis, set out to do, which is to reclaim these voices, temporarily lost in old files and microfiche, and to share "a more complex understanding of African American history--and American history as a whole--and provide[] insight into the literary, cultural, and political movements of these troubling years."

This excellent anthology is a must-buy for libraries everywhere, and an excellent addition to any collection of poetry books, of books dealing with the African American experience, or of books dealing with the Civil War, the ramp-up to the war, and Reconstruction.

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Tags: anthologies, book reviews, desimone, fidel, history, poetry

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